'The Call' review: Halle Berry thriller starts strong, gets hung up

 

Despite its schlocky, high-concept principle - 911 operator tries to save the life of the panicked teenage girl on the other end of the telephone - somebody clearly tried to make "The Call" into a real movie.

They recruited Brad Anderson ("Session 9," "The Machinist") to direct and stacked the cast with razor-sharp performers, from Halle Berry as the operator and Abigail Breslin as the girl in peril to plum supporting roles for Morris Chestnut, Roma Maffia and HBO alums Michael Imperioli and Justina Machado.

And for most of the running time, they get away with it - until the script by Richard D'Ovidio ("Exit Wounds") puts down the phone, plunging its heroine into a standard serial-killer thriller and, as a an added bonus, making her act like an idiot.

When "The Call" channels Cocteau's "The Human Voice" and concentrates on Berry and her headset, the movie maintains an entertaining level of suspense; when it becomes yet another "Silence of the Lambs" rip-off, you can feel the tension seep away.

Experienced 911 staffer Jordan (Berry) stands out among the worker bees at "the hive," the central complex for all of L.A.'s emergency services. However when she's distracted after a romantic coffee-break visit by her cop boyfriend Paul (Chestnut), she makes a fatal error, calling back the young victim of a home invasion. The phone's ring gives away the girl's hiding place, and Jordan hears the killer dispatch his victim.

Fast-forward to six months later: Jordan is taking anxiety meds and has given up the switchboard to become an instructor. When one of her trainees is unable to deal with a panicked call from Casey (Breslin), who has just been snatched from a local mall, Jordan must return to duty.

Anderson masterfully weaves between Jordan and Casey's ever-more-panicked discussion and the widespread manhunt for the girl; adding to the anxiety is actor Michael Eklund, who plays the kidnapper as twitchy enough to be capable of very bad things but smart enough to perhaps get away with it. When "The Call" works, it's a supremely effective B-thriller.

If only the film respected its strengths. Somewhere along the line, it had been decided that it was not enough for Jordan to be a really great 911 operator. Apparently, she also had to be a recklessly foolhardy vigilante, following her own clues and stumbling into the bad guy's murder den unarmed and without back-up.

It seems like a real betrayal to Berry, who's in fact investing some spirit into this character. (No easy feat, since she's been saddled with a wig that calls to mind both Ronald McDonald and Patti LaBelle circa 1975.) All we know about Jordan is just how she does her job, but that's all we need to understand, and for this competent woman to turn into another blithering slasher heroine feels like a huge failure of nerve.

"The Call" turns out to be more interesting than what the trailers promised, yes, however by getting hung up in an unconvincing and ill-conceived third act, we're left with a disappointing disconnect.

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